Those pseudo-inspirational workplace posters annoy me. You know the kind I’m talking about — the ones that say “SUCCESS” and “ENDURANCE” in all caps below some nature-themed stock photography surrounded by a thick black border? Yeah. They’re all over my office, and they’re probably all over yours, too. (I think they multiply after everyone in the office leaves for the evening.)
The more I look at the “AIM HIGH” poster — the one with a mean-looking eagle careening through the sky — the less I feel like aiming high. And the more I feel like creating online parodies of these ubiquitous workplace posters. (Try it; it’s fun.)
Why do these posters annoy us so much? Do these ultra-positive messages actually increase our self-esteem? Well, probably not. According to a paper recently published in Psychological Science (“Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others”), these types of positive messages can actually make you feel worse.
The study didn’t revolve around these posters; rather, it looked exclusively at positive self-talk. Self-talk is a form of intrapersonal communication, or communication within oneself, in which you’re both the sender and the receiver of the message. Telling yourself that you’re a good dancer, a bad speller, a kind friend, or a sore loser means that you’re engaging in self-talk. It sounds logical that positive self-talk would reinforce your positive attributes — after all, if I’m feeling down and I combat it by telling myself that I’m a confident person, then wouldn’t I start to feel better about myself and consequently begin displaying even more confidence? Wouldn’t I just become a veritable machine of ever-looping confidence? I toyed with these thoughts after I read Dr. John Grohol’s post about this very study.
About that personal confidence machine I dreamed up in the preceding paragraph: not so likely, according to researchers Wood, Perunovic, & Lee. Like Dr. John noted last week, they found that individuals (who have low self-esteem to begin with) reported feeling worse — yes, not merely unchanged, but worse! — after engaging in an exercise that involved positive self-talk. John Cloud of TIME.com wrote up a concise summary of the researcher’s findings:
Wood, Lee and Perunovic conclude that unfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem — so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.
What does this conclusion tell us? Well, it puts forth the idea that positive self-talk isn’t so positive after all. If I tell myself that I am a friendly person, then I might paradoxically become more aware of the ways in which I am NOT a friendly person. I might remember how I flipped off that serial lane-changer on the way home from work yesterday in suburban Philly rush hour. I might recall that snarky comment I muttered once while I was on hold for the seventeenth time with Verizon’s customer service department. I might begin to ruminate about how I rarely extend a courteous hello to my co-workers when I arrive at work in the morning because I’m tired and still in that post-sleep haze. Yeah. All of the above is true, and I suddenly don’t feel all that friendly. Sounds like positive self-talk defeats the purpose, right?
But maybe not. Let’s take a look at the manner in which they conducted the research, according to Cloud:
…Wood, Lee and Perunovic measured 68 students on their self-esteem. The students were then asked to write down their thoughts and feelings for four minutes. Every 15 seconds during those four minutes, one randomly assigned group of the students heard a bell. When they heard it, they were supposed to tell themselves, “I am a lovable person.”
Good news for the fans of positive self-talk: there are some definite limitations with the above methodology, so we have to interpret its results with caution. Yes, the sample size is very small and made up of college students (who aren’t typically representative of the population at large). But there are some bigger validity concerns here. (And all good research studies seem to produce more questions than answers.)
First, the students were told to repeat “I am a lovable person” at the sound of a bell. Now, how often have YOU personally engaged in positive self-talk at pre-determined intervals like that? Self-talk (of either the positive or negative type) seems to happen when we’re organically thinking about the situation at hand — not when a researcher prompts you to. This act of self-talk in the study is quite removed from a real-life scenario in which positive self-talk would be useful; thus, the study’s results tell us a lot about what happens when people with low self-esteem are TOLD to use positive-self talk at specific intervals. Unfortunately, it tells us little about what happens when people with low self-esteem use positive self-talk on their own accord when the occasion calls for it.
Second, do these short “bursts” of self-talk described in the study differ in any way from the duration of the self-talk that we engage in during our daily lives? I think they do differ quite dramatically. Perhaps our real-life self-talk sessions last longer than just a moment or two, and maybe longer sessions are more effective. Maybe it takes some time and contemplation to fully sell yourself on the idea that you’re beautiful or lovable or intelligent. If so, then the study’s results should be applied with caution to actual instances of positive self-talk that’s longer in duration.
Third, I think conviction is an important element in successful positive self-talk. Did the participants in the study feel a sense of conviction about the self-talk messages they were instructed to repeat to themselves? If you’re told to internally proclaim that you’re a lovable person, it’s easy to send that message to yourself on autopilot and without much meaning. On the other hand, if you feel personally compelled — thanks to a meaningful life situation — to internally proclaim that you’re a lovable person, wouldn’t you be a stronger believer of that very message? We can persuade others more easily when we believe what we’re saying; so, doesn’t it make sense that we can persuade ourselves in the same way?
The folks who can benefit the most from a self-esteem boost are those with low self-esteem. I don’t think positive self-talk will always make those with low self-esteem feel worse (even though I can’t say the same for the effects of those inspirational posters). But perhaps it’s best to engage in it on your own accord — with your own conviction, when the time feels right, and for a duration that’s longer than just a brief burst. Do it meaningfully.
Does positive self-talk work for you? If so, does it work in some situations and not in others? Why do you think so? Sound off in the comments.